May in the Methow Valley

by Joe Meche

Osprey preparing to land.                                                                                              photo: Joe Mech

The Methow River is a tributary of the Columbia, the largest river in the Pacific Northwest. The Methow’s 1,890 square mile watershed drains much of the wilderness areas of the eastern slope of the North Cascades. Its tributaries include the Chewuch and the Twisp Rivers, and, since these rivers have no significant source of manmade pollution to deal with, they are some of Washington’s cleanest, free-flowing rivers. On its way to the confluence with the Columbia, water from the Methow gives life to numerous agricultural lands, including some of the state’s outstanding fruit orchards. Springtime in the Methow Valley is a joyful time with green hills and a profusion of wildflowers and wildlife. The moderate temperatures of spring are a delightful prelude to the often hot and dry summers.

If you’re a regular reader and follow this column through the seasons, you know about our spring getaway tradition. The idea of camping on the east side of the mountains at least a week before the Memorial Day weekend is often the thought that warms our wet, westside winters. It was very tempting to leave earlier than usual this year since the highway department cleared the snow at Washington Pass sooner than we expected. We had already made reservations for a campsite, so we had to bide our time until our planned departure.

Over the years that we’ve been making our spring pilgrimage, we’ve camped in a number of different areas and in a variety of camping modes. Early in the game, we were hardy small-tent campers who gradually evolved into a larger, more accommodating tent. Possibly related to the aging process, we grew tired of sleeping on the ground and found ourselves in the market to improve our experience. As fate would have it, a friend had a very nice pop-up trailer for sale, so we bought it … and we love it! On the back burner, we still long for another Volkswagen camper van, but the trailer will do just fine until then.

As our camping mode changed, so did our general needs in a campsite. Although we’re totally self-contained, the idea of an electrical hookup has become increasingly attractive. We’ve also agreed that a hot shower is the perfect way to end a day of activity on the often hot and always dusty trails and back roads. We’re not closed to the idea of tent camping but the evolution to something just a bit more refined and comfortable was well received by all. The deciding factors are quite simple: an overnighter allows for a tent, but if we plan on an extended stay, I install the trailer hitch and grab the pop-up.

Just a short and scenic three-hour drive over the North Cascades from Bellingham, Pearrygin Lake State Park provides the single best place for us to spend time. The East Campground at the park serves as a perfect base camp for further exploration of this part of Okanogan County. All the amenities are available at reasonable rates, and the key is to plan far enough ahead for the best sites. Aside from offering a clean, well-maintained campground, Pearrygin Lake lies adjacent to the Methow Wildlife Area. This vast tract covers a large expanse of mixed terrain above Winthrop and is a haven for wildlife of all sorts. A veritable maze of roads interconnects and allows you to explore to your heart’s content.

Along with the necessities, we take bikes and kayaks, as well as proper footwear. We always set aside at least one day to bike from the campground into Winthrop, or, as on one recent trip, an ambitious ride on back roads to Twisp! If the weather is eastside-suitable and my knees are willing, these bike rides are good for the soul. The kayak part is easy, given the expanse of Pearrygin Lake right outside the camper door. The head of the lake is totally undeveloped and where most of the good birds are nesting in May and into June. And then there are the trails that leave from the campground and take you as far as you wish to travel on foot.

Since I’m an early riser, my general routine is to have coffee and an energy bar under my belt before joining the birds by 6 a.m. The quiet of early morning is rejuvenating, especially in spring when birds are actively singing for their mates or feeding nestlings. On the first day on this recent trip, my best discovery was a pair of Say’s phoebes feeding their young. Western meadowlarks greeted the day with their inimitable songs and a handsome lazuli bunting tolerated all the photos I could take. In a worst case scenario, you could take short walks around the campground and come home with a hefty bird list. In fact, a surprise before sunrise one morning was a common poorwill calling inside the campground. Pearrygin also has more than its share of marmots for entertainment purposes.

On a day away from our campsite, we took the high road past Patterson Lake and below Sun Mountain to the bird- and birder-friendly Beaver Pond. I learned of this place several years ago and have made it a point to visit every time we travel to the area. A loop trail around this large pond traverses a variety of habitat types that include wetlands and mixed forests of aspen and Ponderosa pine. Nesting western tanagers, house wrens, yellow warblers, and red-naped sapsuckers are regular sightings in the spring. The centerpiece of the Beaver Pond is the osprey nest that sits atop a snag in the middle of the watery expanse of cattails and marsh grasses. In the forested uplands are owls and grouse and more woodpeckers.

Another delightful drive to take from Pearrygin is a well-maintained dirt road that gains elevation above the valley and meanders first to Campbell Lake and eventually to the trailhead for Pipestone Canyon. This particular road has potential for red-breasted sapsuckers, Bullock’s orioles, and white-breasted nuthatches as the vegetation changes with the increase in elevation. Campbell Lake hosts a variety of nesting birds including yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds, pied-billed grebes, ruddy ducks, and the omnipresent American coots.

The highlight at the end of this forest service road and just beyond the lake is Pipestone Canyon. This geological wonder is remote enough that you’ll rarely encounter many humans on this easy trail. We’ve encountered numerous butterfly species as well as good birds, including the inimitable canyon wren. This is a great spot to see golden eagles and nesting prairie falcons. The towering hoodoos at the beginning of the trail are classic examples of the powers of wind, rain, and ice on soft rock. For the more adventurous, there’s a trail that traverses the rim of the canyon and offers a different perspective of the area. Whichever route you choose in summer, be alert for rattlesnakes!

Keep in mind that the Methow Valley is also in the mix when we plan our getaway to celebrate the arrival of fall, not to mention my birthday trip at the end of October. The weather is certainly different, but the same activities are available. You might see this as a testimonial to one of our favorite places to visit when time and weather allow. The rejuvenative power of a simple trip over the North Cascades is there for the taking. It has always worked for us.

Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and was a member of the board of directors for 20 years. He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 40 years. He has written over 190 columns for Whatcom Watch.

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